After more than a month without light rail service, South Bay commuters are growing frustrated with the local transit agency refusing to say when service will resume.
On Twitter, tweet after tweet from residents ask VTA the same question: When will the light rail train service resume?
The light rail trains have sat idle in downtown San Jose since May 26 when a disgruntled VTA employee killed nine of his colleagues before taking his own life.
In response to an inquiry from San José Spotlight, VTA officials said the agency has no update on when the trains will run again.
“VTA is currently working on a plan to resume light rail service,” a VTA spokesperson said in an email Friday. “We may have more information to release about the process next week.”
The three-line light rail system spans more than 40 miles in the South Bay, connecting residents along the peninsula from Mountain View to San Jose. The network served around 30,000 daily riders prior to the pandemic and 7,600 daily riders this past year, according to VTA’s data.
VTA officials say the shooting caused damage to buildings, equipment and computers necessary to the service.
Shooting’s devastating impact
The transit agency is working to repair the physical damages, but the loss of workers who held highly technical positions could also contribute to the lengthy service suspension, said Jayme Ackemann, a former VTA communications manager with more than 20 years of experience in public transportation. Ackemann also writes a monthly column about transportation for San José Spotlight.
“These were line servicemen and engineers,” Ackemann said. The workers’ jobs included conducting weekly and monthly federally-mandated inspections. “Without them, light rail service will not be authorized.”
Four out of nine substation maintainers at VTA, including the gunman, died during the shooting, according to a VTA spokesperson.
“These were line servicemen and engineers. The workers’ jobs included conducting weekly and monthly federally-mandated inspections. Without them, light rail service will not be authorized.”Jayme Ackemann, former VTA communications manager
Another potential cause for the delay: If workers who witnessed the shooting at the rail yard are out on medical leave due to trauma, “there’s not much VTA can do,” Ackemann added.
More than 100 people were on site the day of the shooting. A VTA spokesperson didn’t answer an inquiry from San José Spotlight about how many employees are taking medical leave due to the shooting.
In June, the transit agency’s board declared an emergency to skip a lengthy bid process for repairs and enter into lease agreements for 90 days. It also launched a task force to oversee efforts to restore service “in the coming weeks,” interim VTA General Manager Evelynn Tran told the board on June 17.
The light rail service suspension leaves thousands of riders scrambling to find alternatives. While many opt to take longer bus routes, others rely on rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft to get around.
Trapped without transit
But the lack of light rail is trapping some people at home, such as San Jose resident Singam Sagar Reddy.
“It’s really sad what happened to (the) VTA team and we understand the pain and loss (that) happened to their families,” he told San José Spotlight. “But stopping light rail for almost a month (causes) a lot of problems.”
Reddy’s family doesn’t own a car, so they rely on public transportation to get around. Taking Uber and Lyft is too expensive on top of rent and other expenses, he said.
“For almost a month, I stayed at home and went out for only very, very urgent things,” Reddy said.
VTA initially provided temporary buses to cover the rail service after the May 26 shooting, but quickly halted the plan on June 1, citing a shortage of workers. The agency recently announced hiring 22 new bus drivers set to begin Monday.
“That was a great idea, but that’s gone too,” said Eugene Bradley, a longtime local public transit advocate and founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users. “VTA could have provided shuttle buses in place of the light rail once every hour. Anything is better than nothing.”
After the temporary buses shuttered, Bradley put together a guide for alternative routes and shared it with others on Twitter. But commuters say they want a timeline of when light rail service will be back.
“There has been no status, no update, just scraps of reports of what’s going on,” Bradley said. “VTA takes pride in being transparent. This is not transparent.”
A vulnerability exposed
The Guadalupe rail yard has served as the nerve center for VTA’s transit network since 1978, and is home to all light rail equipment and maintenance services. VTA bus operations moved to a temporary location following the shooting.
The month-long service suspension has shed a light on a vulnerability at VTA, Ackemann said.
“I agree that VTA needs to come up with a strategy to get this back,” she said. “But I hope the public will also give them some latitudes to scale the service back and address employees’ trauma.”
The transit agency is poised to receive $20 million in state funding to provide mental health resources to employees and their families and to resume light rail service, among other things.
Commuters who need assistance in planning alternative routes can contact VTA at 408-321-2300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Tran Nguyen at email@example.com or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.